LAGRANGE — Things are looking up for Keystone.
Of course, that is the only direction the Wildcats can travel after failing to win a game in 2011.
For the 18 returning starters the 2012 season didn’t begin on the practice field with the opening of two-a-day practices last week. It began in the weight room in the winter, where they worked to put last year’s disastrous results behind them.
“You want your school, your family and your community to be proud of Keystone football, so you had to bring the intensity every day to every workout all offseason,” senior Austin Hartsel said.
Although coach Rob Clarico, in his ninth season, said it was the longest offseason of his football career, he knows better days are ahead for the Wildcats in the Patriot Athletic Conference.
“The players understood last year for what it was. We had 14- and 15-year-olds lining up against 17- and 18-year-olds who are just more physically mature,” Clarico said. “Just getting through last season taught the younger plays what it takes to win football games.”
The offensive line should be a strong point, led by seniors Korey Horne and Brandon Enderby. Horne, a 5-foot-7, 255-pound center, started all 10 games in 2011, and the 6-3, 230-pound Enderby was a first-team, All-Lorain County selection.
The biggest beneficiary of the experience on the line will be senior tailback Greg Howard. He carried the ball 57 times for 251 yards and three touchdowns last season.
“The intensity is different with this team this year,” Howard said. “We know this is going to be a good season.”
Howard will have help in the backfield from senior Brennon O’Connor and sophomore Denny Szalai.
Szalai, a small, speedy back at 5-7, 135 pounds, started his freshman season as a reserve running back but midway through the season found himself pressed into duty at quarterback after the first two options were forced out with injuries. He completed 42 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and three interceptions. He also ran for 156 yards.
Exactly two weeks before Keystone opens up the season against Monroeville, juniors Kendle Stiner and Marcus Gunter are still competing for the starting quarterback job. According to Clarico, each brings different qualities to the huddle.
Stiner is more physical and vocal. Gunter, who would have been the starter in 2011 if he hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury in the final preseason scrimmage, has a stronger arm and the speed to move outside the pocket and elude pass rushers.
Whoever wins the job will be looking downfield for sophomore wide receiver C.J. Conrad. As a freshman, he led the Wildcats with 19 receptions for 181 yards. Clarico also hopes to use his running backs more in passing routes. With eight starters returning on offense, Clarico feels it’s ready to reach the next level.
“When you have players that have varsity experience you can do more fine-tuning than just teaching,” Clarico said. “You can work on taking a step here or moving your body six inches in that direction, the little things that can make a successful team.”
If the Keystone coaches are happy with the experience on offense, they should be ecstatic about the defense. The Wildcats return 10 starters on that side, led by defense tackles Howard and Chase Robison (6-4, 240 pounds).
Howard led the team last season with an average of nearly seven tackles a game. Tackles Enderby and Tyler Nicola will clog the middle in the 4-4 defense.
Sophomore Ryan Tobicash has been impressive in two-a-days and will join a linebacking crew led by junior Pierce Young, who was an All-Lorain County performer.
The front eight will be the key to the overall improvement of a unit that allowed 35 or more points seven times last season. In four games the defense allowed a score on the opening play of the game.
“We’ve worked a lot in the offseason on leadership and we even set up leadership committees within the team,” said Hartsel, a defensive back. “We are truly like a band of brothers out there, so everybody on the defense knows they can’t continue to put the offense in a position where they are playing from behind in every game.”
If he loses the quarterback battle, Stiner will see a lot of time in the defensive backfield alongside C.J. Conrad.
Things can change drastically in the course of one season, and Keystone looks to be on course for a much better season. The question is: How much better?
In a division where three of the six teams made the playoffs last fall, it will be a tough climb from the outhouse to the penthouse. But if the Wildcats aren’t quite ready to contend for a title, they will have a lot to say about who will win the Stars Division.
“We are a stronger, faster team this year,” Clarico said. “The younger players saw what they needed to see last season to motivate them to work hard in the weight room. We won’t have as many kids playing both ways this season, hopefully just three or four. It will be a better year.”
Howard thinks his team might just be ready to shock the world.
“If we play hard and play as a team, we might just go a long way this year,” he said.
- CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic Conference, Stars Division
- 2011 RECORD: 0-10, 0-7
- COACH: Rob Clarico, 9th year (31-49)
- RETURNING LETTERMEN: 40
- RETURNING STARTERS: 18
- FAST FACT: Keystone’s last league title came in 1971, when they went 9-0 to win the Inland Conference championship.
- Aug. 24: Monroeville (7)
- Aug. 31: at Norwalk (7:30)
- Sept. 7: at Galion (7)
- Sept. 14: Clearview (7)*
- Sept. 21: at Brooklyn (7)*
- Sept. 28: Brookside (7)*
- Oct. 5: Firelands (7)*
- Oct. 12: at Wellington (7)*
- Oct. 19: at Buckeye (7)*
- Oct. 26: Black River (7)*
* Patriot Athletic Conference
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Contact Todd Shapiro at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.